If you need a nearly mid-summer pick me up, a song featuring a deliciously addictive hook that will have you hitting replay again and again, have I got the song for you! Kyoto, Japan’s The Mayflowers have nailed multiple generations of the Liverpool sound with equal parts La’s and Beatles on this should-be hit single, “Maybelline.” The opening riff clearly echoes The La’s “There She Goes” (which itself echoed earlier 1960s styles) while the song’s broader melody arc reminds one of The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright,” without sounding derivative The guitars here are exquisite, sibilant and shimmering, while the vocals layer up perfectly. The song originally appeared on the band’s 2012 album Plymouth Rock, recorded at Abbey Road studios, but is also included on the recent 2019 The Best of Mayflowers: From the Beginning, a good introduction to the breadth of their seven album catalogue.
And while you’re here, you might as well check out the band’s loving tribute to the late Fountains of Wayne co-founder Adam Schlesinger, a just-released cover of his fab movie song “That Thing You Do!” Man, these guys are good! Here’s the fun video and click here to download the single for free. To download the song, scroll down to the song player, click on the boxed-in Japanese lettering in red, and then in the new window choose Mp3 or FLAC.
Check out the wonderful world of The Mayflowers. You’re gonna want to live there.
In the 1990s Fountains of Wayne had a huge impact on me. A Beatles, Elvis Costello, Marshall Crenshaw, and Squeeze kind of impact. I loved the quirky, alienated melodic should-be hits of the debut, couldn’t stop bopping to the hooks on Utopia Parkway, and marveled at the Sgt. Pepper-esque stature of Welcome Interstate Managers. Sure, Traffic and Weather seemed a bit of a holding pattern but then Sky Full of Holes had them back in fine form. I just assumed there’d be many more great albums to come. The recent passing of one half of the band’s creative force, Adam Schlesinger, has put the coda on that amazing body of work. Well, we’ll always have the songs. Indeed, now we’ll have to make do with how others take up the catalogue.
And here I am delighted to report that a fantastic new chapter of FOW life begins now with a great new collection of covers from Radiant Radish Records. If you love the band, there’s no doubt in my mind you’re gonna want to check out Can’t Shake That Tune: A Tribute to Fountains of Wayne. RR’s Mike Patton has put together a splendid stable of indie artist covering FOW material, with selections from each of the band’s albums. And for a collection put together in about a month – from conception to recording to release – the quality is impressive. Some artists hue pretty close to the originals (American Wood “Denise”; The Easy Button “The Summer Place”) while others attempt to jar our sense of the familiar with new tempos and styles (Jonathan Pushkar “Stacy’s Mom”). There’s punked-up energy (Vista Blue “The Senator’s Daughter”), folkie stripped-down restraint (Christian Migilorese “Troubled Times”), and plenty of ukulele too (The Soft Spots “Sink to the Bottom”).
You can feel the love all over this collection. And there really are no filler tracks here – everyone’s gonna have their faves. For me, it’s hard not to get choked up listening to “Hey Julie,” a song that encapsulates the genius of FOW, both songwriting and performance-wise. The Wellingtons capture the joy of the song, delivering something unique while honouring the feel of the original.
Can you believe it? This collection is being offered up entirely free! Get to Radiant Radish Records on bandcamp and dowload your copy. And while you’re there, click on the links for all the contributing artists to see what they’re doing and support independent music.
When rock critics got wind of a new supergroup forming in early 2009 that would combine talent from the Smashing Pumpkins, Fountains of Wayne, Cheap Trick and Hanson they were giddy with anticipation. But when Tinted Windows’ self-titled debut dropped in April, the gloves suddenly came off. Pitchfork called the record “hopelessly dated and irrelevant,” declaring “the whole of Tinted Windows is so much less than the sum of its considerable parts…” The review ended thus: “If there are dollar bins in the future, that’s where you’ll find this failed debut.” Ouch. Others were just as scathing. PopMatters complained that “Tinted Windows, tragically, is everything that a pop-rock disc shouldn’t be: bland, boring, and completely forgettable.” The reviewer thought the record was a “terrible, hookless affair,” perhaps “the worst album to be released in 2009 thus far.” There were more balanced reviews but they too were often hemmed in with backhanded compliments. The A.V. Club described the album as “wonderfully shallow,” Spin thought it “safe and bouncy enough for Jo Bros fans and Stacy’s mom alike,” while Rolling Stone preferred FOW more clever lyrics but allowed that “these likable tunes usually hit their modest marks.” Not exactly ringing endorsements.
I heard about these reviews at the time but only landed a copy of the record a few months ago. Imagine my surprise to discover that Tinted Windows is an amazing debut album. Forget all the rock critic super-group nonsense. Tinted Windows are a straight-up, guitar-driven poprock group, delivering a new century take on that stripped down late 70s/early 1980s melodic rock and roll sound, with all the usual nods to the Cars, the Knack, Big Star and the Cheap Trick. Adam Schlesinger writes most the songs and you can definitely hear the Fountains of Wayne influence on tracks like “Dead Serious” with its super hooky chorus or “Can’t Get a Read on You.” But as he noted in interviews, he deliberately toned down the signature FOW wordplay for a more direct lyrical style. You can really hear this on the debut single, “Kind of Girl,” with its solid thumping poprock groove. Other members of the group contribute a few songs: James Iha gets a nice slow Cheap Trick grind going with “Back with You” while lead singer Taylor Hanson’s “Nothing to Me” has some nice Beatlesque guitar changes. But the album’s hit single should have been “Without Love,” which opens with a killer hook that just won’t let up – hands down, best song on record. The Hanson/Schlesinger composition “Take Me Back” is another strong contender for a single with some very catchy hooks in the chorus.Without LoveTake Me Back
In separate interviews as recent as 2014 both Hanson and Iha claimed that Tinted Windows would be back with another record one day. Perhaps this time music critics will judge what the band actually delivers instead of what they thought the band should be. In the meantime, buy Tinted Windows wherever it can be found.
Some people are feeling pretty low. Now seems like a good time to visit the parallel but contemporary universe of Suzanne Vega. I discovered her debut album in the discard pile of the first (and only) commercial radio station I ever worked at in Smithers, British Columbia. It helped me survive that town. There was something poetic and ominous, alienated and soothing about that record. I spent a lot of late nights living within its sonic confines. A poet’s job is to help us cope with a world gone wrong. I think the Vega song for this moment is “When Heroes Go Down” from 1992’s 99.9F. Right now, the hero is not really any person but that sense of hope that people like to have around. It’s a catchy number, despite its message.
There are other people in the Suzanne Vega universe – really anyone with a poetic sense. Leonard Cohen died the other day and some people on Facebook were like ‘what did he ever really do?’ or ‘tea and oranges are just escapism’. I felt sorry for them. Poetry is just politics that is out of phase, deliberately. It directs our attention to things we might not otherwise see, even though they are often right before us. Look Park’s front man Chris Collingwood understands that and excels at character sketches where the protagonist is unaware of just how much they are telling us, i.e. just how unhappy or unfulfilled they are. As one half of the Fountains of Wayne songwriting team, Collingwood honed his craft over a number of records and it shows on his new vehicle’s self titled debut album, particularly on the exquisitely melancholy “Minor is the Lonely Key.”
Another wonderfully unpredictable act are the Franco-American band Freedom Fry, a duo that clearly take themselves only so seriously. Their 2011 debut EP, Let the Games Begin, runs the gamut of influences from electronica to folk pop. Since then they have continued to take a host of musical detours. 2012’s Outlaws maxi-single has them channeling an outlaw vibe, but in two languages. “Bonnie and Clyde” has a lovely strolling quality, a poetically arranged, style-busting ballad that ends all too typically but gets there in an unconventional manner. How wonderful to just go where the muse takes you. Their new single, “Shaky Ground,” is also great, available in three different styles.
Coming back to Leonard Cohen, there is a lot of buzz about his deathbed release, You Want It Darker. Sure, it seems Leonard Cohen great, in that dark poetic sombre singer-songwriter on the edge of death sort of way. But 2014’s Popular Problems ranks as one Cohen’s best for me, both in terms of performance and material. The sardonic “Almost Like the Blues” should put the rest any ‘this guy ain’t political’ rhetoric while “You Got Me Singing” speaks to the power of connection between two people at any age. Musically, “Did I Ever Love You” is my favourite track, mournful and melodic at the same time – it sounds like the end but really it speaks to impact of time spent together.
Let’s end on where we are going. The only way from down is up. Suzanne Vega suggests we may all be the agents of change, though not through obvious means. In “If I Were a Weapon” she eschews the blunt hammer or gun for a needle ‘always pulling on the thread’ that is ‘always making the same point again’. The point is, the stars will align again, and not just in the Suzanne Vega universe.If I Were a Weapon
In this musical universe, digital lucre is one way to show these poets some love. Visit Suzanne Vega, Look Park, Freedom Fry, and Leonard Cohen online to check out their latest (or in Leonard’s case, last) releases and public appearances.
The holiday music scene is a bloated market, artificially inflated by the pushback of the start of the Xmas season to sometime shortly after midnight on November 1st. Department stores, malls and elevators everywhere crave more songs to wallpaper two months of shopping with holiday music. Still, despite the saturation, I love Xmas music. My collection has both old and new contributions and a surprising number of b-sides. For instance, a top ten choice for me is the flip side of Bobby Helm’s “Jingle Bell Rock,” a space age number called “Captain Santa Claus.” Santa’s sleigh breaks down, the elves build a rocket ship, you get the picture. But rather than simply being a novelty cash grab, it’s actually a decent song. Another great b-side is the backing track to John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas,” performed by Yoko Ono: “Listen the Snow is Falling.” Ok, that one will be more controversial – but I like it.
The internet is crawling with holiday music playlists and definitive collections of holiday music from every era and style imaginable – so I won’t do something like that here. Instead, I’ll just riff on the theme with a few choice poprock selections.
Many people are familiar with Fountains of Wayne’s “I Want an Alien for Christmas” but I prefer their more subtle ruminations in “The Man in the Santa Suit” from their 2005 rarities and b-sides collection Out-of-State Plates. The song has great hooks but it is FOW’s unerring ability to capture the social ennui of the holidays that sets it apart. Everybody in the song – from the boozy mall Santa-for-hire to the vomitous and unhappy children – is trying but not really succeeding in living up to the joyous demands of the season.
Fountains of Wayne – The Man in the Santa Suit
For a rockier tune, Best Coast and Wavves “Got Something for You” has more of a ‘buzz guitar with dreamy vocals’ vibe. On the poppier side, before he fronted the Eels, Mark Everett was known simply as ‘E’ and offered up more crafted poprock than his band’s later edgier material. “Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas” harkens back to his E rather than Eels’ days. Coming back to edgy, Weezer transforms “Come All Ye Faithful” to bring out the great pop elements of the song with a treatment that reminds me of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes’ cheeky punk-pop makeovers of classic poprock songs. For some Canadian content, The Kings were a Toronto band best known for their 1980 hit “This Beat Goes On/Switching to Glide” but on a follow up EP they performed their own holiday number, “This Christmas” which I always thought warranted more attention.
Weezer – Come All Ye Faithful
E – Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas
The Kings – This Christmas
To wrap up, three more recent songs, one by the Scottish band Dropkick, another by Sweden’s The Genuine Fakes, and the last from North Carolina’s The Rosebuds. Dropkick’s “When Santa Comes Around” is from their strong holiday EP, 25th December, while The Genuine Fakes offer up their poprock reinvention of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” originally featured in the movie Frozen. The last song here I heard on an holiday themed episode of The Flash and it stuck in my head so much that I tracked it down online: the Rosebuds “I Hear (Click, Click, Click).”
Fountains of Wayne were a late discovery for me. I was long past my own initial period of finding new music (roughly from 1978 to 1992), too busy with academic pursuits to hit the record bins. Luckily a friend (thanks Tony Lee!) turned me on to their debut album and it blew my mind – I was hooked. To me, FOW were what great poprock singles were made of. The debut album Fountains of Wayne had “Radiation Vibe,” Utopia Parkway had “Red Dragon Tattoo,” while Welcome Interstate Managers, their masterpiece, had the flawless and commercially successful “Stacey’s Mom” (which reached 21 on Billboard’s Hot 100). But on 2007’s Traffic and Weather FOW seemed to lose their way, failing to capitalize on their previous success. 2011’s Sky Full of Holes offered a serious course correction, full of great songs showcasing the band’s great range in songwriting and performance.
But the highlight was the album’s first single “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart,” a perfect distillation of all the great elements of a poprock hit. Pumping piano kicks off the song, giving way to the opening lyrics that eventually swell into a mix of background vocals. Nearly everything drops out to just piano as the vocals ask “Should we take this town, do we want to, tear this whole thing down …” while the band comes back in. And so on. Great poprock hits have a dreamy quality and FOW nail it with a song that should have climbed the charts.